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In Defence of Working Away From Home
By: Chris Andreou
Among the many societal changes prognosticators claim will result from the COVID-19 pandemic, one has stood out as consistent from the first moment of lockdown to this very day. Whether you follow traditional media or not, you have likely heard about the death of the office and the “working from home” revolution that is upon us, and COVID-19 be damned, is here to stay. During the initial lockdown, those lucky enough to have a job that could easily transition from office to home were quick to jump on the “working from home is awesome” bandwagon. No more early mornings, long commutes, and shallow workplace banter. Before long, some companies even announced a permanent work from home mandate. Amidst the misery of a global pandemic, this seemed to be perhaps one bright spot for many. People daydreamed about being free to untether themselves from crowded cities and live where they wish, all the while helping the world by contributing less pollution. More free time would be available for everyone to finally do what they’ve always wanted. On the surface this sounds wonderful, but having spent the last nine months working from home, I am not convinced. In fact, I actually think it is dangerous for society.
Now, I am extremely grateful to have a job where the transition to working from home was seamless (forgetting to unclick mute notwithstanding), and I definitely enjoy the extra sleep and freedom it brings. However, I do miss the camaraderie built in the office environment, legitimate in-person teamwork, and team lunches. But this isn’t simply about personal preferences that a lot of people have echoed as the pandemic continues on. My biggest fear is a further breakdown in an already fractured society. Our society has become increasingly siloed, leaving less room for different groups of people to interact, empathize, and converse. Since March 2020 throughout the ebbs and flows of COVID restrictions, I have interacted with remarkably few people face to face, and it isn’t for lack of trying. In a society where working from home is fully embedded, social circles will become increasingly small and spontaneous conversations with others almost unheard of. The echo chambers and bubbles we have been warned about will become prevalent not just on social media pages, but day-to-day life. If the trends accelerated by COVID continue, connections to community beyond people’s self-selected groups will be severed.
Optimists have expressed the hope that what people lose in public interactions from commutes and office life, they will gain from being more active in other areas of the community. It is certainly a tempting argument, and I wish it were the case. But does anyone who has been observing society over the last decade actually think that is realistic? Youth sports participation is down across North America, community organizations and church attendance has been bleeding for decades, and local media is disappearing. One doesn’t need to read decades of statistics to know what is right in front of them. Western (mostly North American) culture has become increasingly more individualistic for decades, and with social media driving heightened partisanship between groups, this trend does not seem to be going away. Meeting people at the office and commuting to and from work may be one of the very last ways to meet people outside of one’s carefully curated social group.
I am slightly reassured by the growing dissatisfaction from solely working from home, and that the majority of people favour the “flex-work” of both working from home and the office. However, people are very bad at forward reasoning, and there are significant short-term benefits to be gained from "working from home" compared to its long term damage. Given the short term incentives at play such as lower home prices out of the city and money saved from commuting, the resiliency of "flex-work" could be in serious jeopardy. This is why it is so hard to solve problems like global warming and why governments implement pension systems. Given the choice, people will opt for the short-term gain to the detriment of the long-term. But unlike global warming or saving for retirement, the negative impact from societal disconnect won’t ultimately be realized at some later period if one lives long enough. A disconnect from society and lack of community will slowly chip away at any care one may have for others facing different problems from them and their immediate peers. This lack of empathy and understanding is already pervasive in society, and before anyone realizes it, despite the added benefits of working from home, society will be reshaped completely toward hyperindividualism. A society where all the disparate parts share no common bond is doomed to fail.
Perhaps this ship has sailed, and I would never advocate for government policy that would be so intrusive in people’s everyday lives by telling them where to work. Short of a major societal change that rebuilds community engagement, little can be done to stop this wave (if you or someone you know has ideas, contact me). Regardless of this decades long trend, people still crave community. Tapping into this intrinsic human need may be one way to solve it. The increased rate of traveling among youth is one hopeful sign, assuming they’re actually learning about different cultures and their experiences. But more will need to be done if we are to retain our ability to interact with people who share different opinions or backgrounds. Being at the office isn’t the solution, but it may buy us time before it's too late to come up with one.